Friendship receives very little serious treatment in our cultural avenues largely due to the Freudian sexualization of the whole of the human experience. Intimate friendship is suspect in our culture. We've lost friendship, and we desperately need to rediscover it. True friendship is rare enough as it is, and philios is one of the most essential expressions of being human. We were designed for deep, human connections.
So when friendship does receive serious treatment in contemporary literature, such novels, plays, short stories are particularly noteworthy. In our series this month on fiction, we've talked a lot about how reading fiction has the potential to make us better humans. In the same vein, stories that embody authentic friendship provide us the opportunity to be better friends.
Harry Potter, one of my favorite stories, takes friendship seriously. Through the young protagonists, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we learn quite a lot about friendship. We discover friendship as a virtue and a discipline; as a form of hospitality and a means of learning forgiveness, sharpening character, and cultivating both self-sacrifice and a sense of self.
Here are the highlights:
"Bad company corrupts good character." That's not from Harry Potter, it's from the Bible. But the idea is deeply embedded in the Hogwarts Saga. Right at the start of Harry's life as a wizard, The Boy Who Lived has the opportunity to ditch the red-headed boy he befriended on the train and become friends with the cool, rich, powerful Draco Malfoy. Referring to Ron and his hand-me-down robes, Draco informs Harry, "You'll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don't want to go making friends with the wrong sort." Harry doesn't need to know Latin to understand Draco Malfoy is a character of the wrong sort, a character of 'bad faith' (mal-foy). Harry rejects Malfoy's offer of an alliance (of power more than of friendship) and pleads with the Sorting Hat, "Not Slytherin. Not Slytherin," house of the snake; he is placed instead in Gryffindor, house of the lion. (The Philosopher's Stone)
Harry and Ron, only two-thirds of the literary "soul triptych," are incomplete without Hermione (as John Granger discusses here and in more depth here). It is when these three become friends that things really start rolling. Hermione becomes trapped in the girls' toilets by a troll, partly due to Ron's insensitivity toward her---"No wonder she hasn't got any friends." Owning their responsibility and their need to make it right, Ron and Harry go to find Hermione and the three work together to defeat the troll. Grateful, Hermione, the rule-follower and sometimes annoying or at least inconvenient truth-teller, lies (to a teacher no less) and takes the full blame in order to keep the boys out of yet further trouble. After all, “There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them” (Philosopher's Stone). This marks the beginning of the trio's great friendship, and I can't think of a more apropos signpost. Throughout the rest of the series, they will face hardship, heartbreak, betrayal, and various forms of evil, both in the world and in their hearts, but they will face them together. Without saying it directly, Rowling hints at the essential nature of friendship, that it derives from shared experiences, and that those which are difficult and painful, those which expose our vulnerable humanity, those experiences create the strongest bonds.
It's important that Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn this lesson early. When Voldemort returns to power in The Goblet of Fire (Book 4), Dumbledore, often the voice of truth, makes clear the necessity of friendship in the cosmic (and everyday) fight for love and truth and beauty against corrupt power and malicious deception: "We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort's gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust." Would that the Church grasped this truth. Is it just me, or is Dumbledore/Rowling channeling the apostle Paul who writes, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all!" (Eph. 4:3-6)?
After struggling throughout the majority of The Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) with the part of himself he shares with The Dark Lord (it's not a perfect analogy, but think, sin nature), Harry comes out on the other side of his harrowing darkness realizing the light is stronger, and when he does, he finds pity for his enemy. Voldemort views love and friendship, and the vulnerability required therein, as weakness, and therefore he ever underestimates their power. And Harry, after trying all year to shut out his friends and shut off his love for them in an attempt to save them from his burden and numb himself from his emotional turmoil, after all this, Harry finally understands and finds compassion akin to that of Frodo for Gollum (another great saga about friendship). “You're the one who is weak." Harry declares to Voldemort. "You will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.” In the end (of Book 7), The Chosen One actualizes the full power of love by sacrificing himself for his friends. It's the Gospels Rowling echos now: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." And Harry's sacrifice covers them.
Harry is a fierce friend; reading his story challenges me to be a better friend. He isn't perfect, but he is exceedingly loyal. He makes mistakes, but he makes it right. He is a friend to those on the margins,"the least of these," he shows compassion to his enemies, and he willingly lays down his life for his friends. Harry has the capacity to be a good friend in part because he has good friends. They accept him for who he is, the light and the dark, and in them he has a home like he never had at number four Privet Drive. If I can learn to be half the friend these fictional teenagers are, I might come to "live a life worthy of the calling [I] have received" (Eph. 4:1).